The OF Blog

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's been a bit quiet here lately, I suppose...

It's been almost two months since my last post here, so I suppose I should provide a little update for those who might be wondering if I have abandoned this blog for good.  No, I still plan on blogging here whenever I get the chance, but the past few months haven't been all that conducive for writing reviews.  Not that all of the reasons for that are bad, per se, but they do hamper my ability/desire to type a thousand words or so on whatever comes to mind.

Foremost, I have been recovering from what is likely a torn ligament in my right ring finger that I suffered during a fall in a creek during a six mile trail race back on my birthday in mid-July.  I reaggravated that injury back in late August when I had to block a teen with autism from attacking me.  Lately, I have very little pain in it, only when I have to have a prolonged grip on heavy items, but I did have to avoid using it whenever possible, since my hand would cramp up faster than usual due to avoiding putting any weight-bearing pressure on it.  I am optimistic that I'll be able to resume heavier weight-lifting in the next few weeks, but first it seems I'll have to re-teach myself how to type with all ten digits, as I seem to be missing typing a few letters that I used to type with that finger.

I'm still very busy with run training.  I have 3-5 more races to run this year, including a possible 12K (7.4 mile) race in early December, before I begin training in earnest for running 2-3 half-marathons in 2017 (and a hopeful marathon and 50K in 2018).  This takes a lot of my free time, especially on weekends, so it's difficult to maintain the required focus necessary for me to read and write reviews and columns (trust me, if I had the time, I would have written a lengthy piece on my thoughts on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I just didn't have it in me this weekend), but at least I'm happy with training so far, even if it means a reduction in the pace of weight loss compared to last year or earlier this year (I have to eat more in order to fuel my body properly for these sessions; I've also had to add more muscle mass for greater endurance).

But there's another reason behind my recent semi-silence:  the current moods I see on social media exhaust me.  I've largely abandoned Twitter this year (reading it maybe 1-2 times a week for 5-10 minutes without responding for 1-3 months at a time) because the "book" conversations were so little about the books themselves and much more about the controversies du jour that I just found myself struggling to find a reason for even reading anything at all.  Might explain in part why for the past year I've read little but histories and other primary source material (largely drawn from my nearly 200 volumes of Library of America books), because there isn't the "noise" associated with those works that are associated with certain recent releases.  I hope to read more recent releases by year's end or early 2017, but I first need to achieve a greater, more proper distance between the work and whatever other people might be saying around, behind, and under the books themselves.

I must admit that it might be a blessing to have shed 90% of my former readership over the past six years.  There is that sense of greater freedom in being able to write about whatever might please me without having to worry or becoming annoyed at others who want to interject tangential opinions.  So if I don't feel like weighing in on whatever supposedly asinine and/or hurtful thing an author or "fan" wrote, I don't have to, since there should be no expectation of me "taking sides" if I consistently remain silent on such matters.  Instead, I might just write about the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the writings of three American Presidents (and Franklin and Hamilton).  That is what interests me now. 

But until I do, I think I'll just maintain mostly radio silence until I have the time, energy, and desire to write on those matters that interest me first and foremost.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Gordon S. Wood (ed.), The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776

Liberty is the greatest blessing that men enjoy, and slavery the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of. – This being so, makes it a matter of the utmost importance to men, which of the two shall be their portion.  Absolute Liberty is, perhaps, incompatible with any kind of government. – The safety resulting from society, and the advantage of just and equal laws, hath caused men to forego some part of their natural liberty, and submit to government.  This appears to be the most rational account of it's beginning; although, it must be confessed, mankind have by no means been agreed about it:  Some have found it's origin in the divine appointment:  Others have thought it took it's rise from power:  Enthusiasts have dreamed that dominion was founded in grace.  Leaving these points to be settled by the descendants of Filmer, Cromwell, and Venner, we will consider the British constitution, as it at present stands, on revolution principles; and, from thence endeavour to find the measure of the magistrate's power, and the people's obedience.

This glorious constitution, the best that ever existed among men, will be confessed by all, to be founded by compact, and established by consent of the people.  By this most beneficent compact, British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws to which themselves have some way consented, and are not to be compelled to part with their property, but as it is called for by the authority of such laws:  The former is truly liberty; the latter is really to be possessed of property, and to have something that may be called one's own.

– ("The Rights of Colonies Examined.", Stephen Hopkins, Providence, Rhode Island, 1765, vol. I, p. 125)

The American Revolution, as distinct from the War for American Independence, did not begin with a musket shot in Lexington, Massachusetts in April 1775.  Rather, it began a decade before with a war of ideas fought in newspapers and in pamphlets sold for a shilling.  There, colonial and imperial leaders held forth on issues of liberty, representation, and the limitations and virtues of the British constitution (and Parliamentary power) as it related to the original thirteen North American English colonies.  Both sides, the nascent Patriot and Loyalist/Imperial, often alluded to Greco-Roman orators as being the ultimate source for their arguments on these topics.  In hindsight, what was transpiring just over 250 years ago is rather amazing, as civil discourse became increasingly intertwined with violence (tarring and feathering, burning of officials' houses, the Boston Massacre of 1770, etc.) and yet until the very end the rhetoric never truly (with a few notable exceptions) directly alluded to these violent acts.  It was as though there were two conflicts being acted out simultaneously and yet never truly in concert with each other.

American historian Gordon S. Wood (author of the award-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution) in this two-volume Library of America set, The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776, has chosen 39 pamphlets published during the period between the passage of the Sugar Act and the Declaration of Independence that present the breadth and depth of the arguments made in favor or in opposition to increased American autonomy in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.  He prefaces each pamphlet with a short précis of the pamphlet's general arguments and later actions of the author.  These 1-2 page summaries help non-specialists get the gist of the arguments being presented, as there are times that the authors make so many allusions to classical writers and to legal aspects of the documents that comprise the British constitution that it can be difficult for some readers to grasp what exactly is being argued and why.

Yet a closer examination of these pamphlets and how Wood has juxtaposed them reveal some fascinating undercurrents.  In the preface to the pamphlet quoted above, Wood references Rhode Island's rather unique political system (rotation of the colonial capital among five towns, semiannual voting for assemblymen, a "modern" two party/faction system).  The information there makes Hopkins' observation about how absolute liberty might be incompatible with any form of government seem not just the abstract musing of a quasi-anarchist but rather a wry commentary from someone who is intimately versed in decentralized politics. 

Immediately following Hopkins' pamphlet is Martin Howard Jr.'s "A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax, to his Friend in Rhode-Island, Containing Remarks upon a Pamphlet, Entitled, The Rights of Colonies Examined."  This pamphlet is not just a point-by-point response to "Rights of the Colonies Examined," but it also is one of the earliest and most forceful defenses of the Imperial viewpoint that the colonies by their very foundation by people of English descent have submitted themselves to the strictures of the English constitution:

Our personal rights, comprehending those of life, liberty and estate, are secured to us by the common law, which is every subject's birthright, whether born in Great-Britain, on the ocean, or in the colonies, and it is in this sense we are said to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Englishmen.  The political rights of the colonies, or the powers of government communicated to them, are more limited, and their nature, quality and extent depend altogether upon the patent or charter which first created and instituted them.  As individuals, the colonists participate of every blessing the English constitution can give them.  As corporations created by the crown, they are confined within the primitive views of their institution.  Whether therefore their indulgence is scanty or liberal, can be no cause of complaint; for when they accepted of their charters, they tacitly submitted to the terms and conditions of them. (I, pp. 150-151)

Howard, as part of a faction that wanted to revoke Rhode Island's charter and have its radically democratic colonial assembly come under direct royal control, came under direct attack during the Stamp Act protests and he later had to flee to England to avoid physical harm.  These threats, including those made to the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, lie as a dark shadow upon the arguments presented during this time.  In the case of Hutchinson, a native of Massachusetts, he became one of the most hated men in North America because of his principled stance in favor of continued union with England, even as more and more colonial leaders and thinkers, especially after 1770, began to advocate autonomy, if not outright independence, as a solution for the problems surrounding representation and taxation.  In his January 1773 speech to the Massachusetts Assembly, Hutchinson outlines his opposition to this increasingly popular viewpoint:

If what I have said shall not be sufficient to satisfy such as object to the Supreme Authority of Parliament over the Plantations, there may something further be added to induce them to an Acknowledgment of it which I think will well deserve their Consideration.  I know of no Line that can be drawn between the supreme Authority of Parliament and the total Independence of the Colonies.  It is impossible there should be two independent Legislatures in one and the same State, for although there may be but one Head, the King, yet the two Legislative Bodies will make two Governments as distinct as the Kingdoms of England and Scotland before the Union.  If we might be suffered to be altogether independent of Great-Britain, could we have any Claim to the Protection of that Government of which we are no longer a Part?  Without this Protection should we not become the Prey of one or the other Powers of Europe, such as should first seize upon us?  Is there any Thing which we have more Reason to dread than Independence?  I hope it will never be our Misfortune to know by Experience the Difference between the Liberties of an English Colonist and those of the Spanish, French or Dutch. (II, p. 10)
As reasoned as Hutchinson's speech may be, he could not fathom truly the depth of desire for separation.  For him and other future Loyalists, Parliament was the protector of freedoms and to reject parliamentary suzerainty was tantamount to abandoning security in a wild goose chase for liberty unmoored from centuries of traditions accreting around the acts and documents that comprised the English constitution.  Therefore, the response made by certain members of the Massachusetts Assembly, including future American leaders John Hancock and John Adams, likely baffled him in their rejection of this view of Parliament being the protector of English and colonial freedoms:

We fully agree with your Excellency, that our own Happiness as well as his Majesty's Service, very much depends upon Peace and Order, and we shall at all Times take such Measures as are consistent with our Constitution and the Rights of the People to promote and maintain them.  That the Government at present is in a very disturbed State is apparent!  But we cannot ascribe it to the People's having adopted unconstitutional Principles, which seems to be the Cause assigned for it by your Excellency.  It appears to us to have been occasioned rather, by the British House of Commons assuming and exercising a Power inconsistent with the Freedom of the Constitution, to give and grant the Property of the Colonists, and appropriate the same without their Consent. (II, p. 24)

This grounding of the main points of contention within this perceived usurpation of constitutional power by Parliament set the framework for later arguments during the people immediately preceding and following the Battles of Lexington and Concord two years later.  Most of the subsequent pamphlets in the second volume follow, in their support or dissent, upon the premises established here.  By 1776, the argument had switched from a direct focus on Parliament's regulatory power in the colonies to a debate on the source from whence liberty and popular representation commenced.  Wood does an excellent job in weaving these strands together to present a powerful argument that the American Revolution did not begin with a shot but instead with a thorough debate, via printed media, on the origins of political powers and human rights.  Although this debate had occurred over a century before during the English Revolution through the use of broadsides (and later, the English Civil War), these ideas found their mature expression during the 1764-1776 gestation period that led to the birth of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents written in world history.  What followed after was messy, with consequences that still affect us today.  The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776 serves as a excellent look at these written documents that spawned the modern representative republic form of government now seen in much of the world today.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The OF Blog Turns 12

Sometimes, it is weird to reflect on how things stood back on August 25, 2004 when I created this blog.  As I said numerous anniversaries before, this blog was intended to be an outreach/supplement to the Other Fantasy section of wotmania (which went defunct in September 2009; its "successor" site, Read and Find Out, recently announced it too is about to shutter its virtual doors after seven years).  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and...

Yeah, a lot has changed since a barely 30 year-old me established this.  I've seen the rise and fall of many individual blogs and the spread of that bligh...err, social media that links divers groups of people together.  Twitter, podcasts, Tumblr, Reddit...none of that really existed in 2004, at least not in a mass consumption form.  I don't begrudge people who communicate via those formats, but I will admit, while I pause to tell some kids to get off my lawn, that I think something has been lost in the change.

Granted, blogs themselves were rapid-response, "hot take" vehicles as well, where each blogger could (and did) quickly spout off his or her opinion on the topic du jour.  But with much more than 140 characters or .gif memes deployed to develop a response/message, things just seemed a bit more nuanced, less dependent on immediacy of response.  I will admit that I have largely abandoned Twitter this year due to the "echo effect" I see when I see, like a burst of fireworks, one person, then a dozen, then maybe a hundred or more on my Twitter feed, sound off on something that seems more and more picayune to me with each passing day.  Sometimes, it's just better to not say anything if all it is is just a rehash/retweet of someone else's opinion, over and over again.

But enough of the old man grouching.  I am still happy that I have a place where I can muse on what literary work has grabbed my attention for the moment (right now, it is late 18th century American history).  I don't worry about who reads this (I'm not posting links to this article anywhere else) or anything else on my blog.  In a perverse way, it is comforting to know that a large percentage of those who do read my writings now (based on search engine hits) seem to be students looking for "information" *cough*plagiarizing*cough* on Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and others that I have reviewed in recent years.  At least these visitors are here for info on literature and not my ephemeral opinion on some piddling "fandom" issue.  A pox and several plagues on those houses!

As for the future,'s bright enough outside that I got to wear shades...

Monday, August 08, 2016

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America

The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History.  In appearance they are feeble; in reality, copious and full of force.  Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak become mighty for good and evil, and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand forth as agents of Destiny.  In their toils, their sufferings, their conflicts, momentous questions were at stake, and issues vital to the future world, – the prevalence of races, the triumph of principles, health or disease, a blessing or a curse.  On the obscure strife where men died by tens or by scores hung questions of as deep import for posterity as on those mighty contests of national adolescence where carnage is reckoned by thousands.

The subject to which the proposed series will be devoted is that of "France in the New World," – the attempt of Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent where, at this hour, half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendency of a regulated freedom; – Feudalism still strong in life, though enveloped and overborne by new-born Centralization; Monarchy in the flush of triumphant power; Rome, nerved by disaster, springing with renewed vitality from ashes and corruption, and ranging the earth to reconquer abroad what she had lost at home.  These banded powers, pushing into the wilderness their indomitable soldiers and devoted priests, unveiled the secrets of the barbarous continent, pierced the forests, traced and mapped out the streams, planted their emblems, built their forts, and claimed all as their own.  New France was all head.  Under king, noble, and Jesuit, the lank, lean body would not thrive.  Even commerce wore the sword, decked itself with badges of nobility, aspired to forest seigniories and hordes of savage retainers. (Introduction, p. 13 Library of America edition, vol. I of France and England in North America)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, I frequently would check out old histories from the local library.  There was something exhilarating to read 50-100 year-old histories where there was a sense of momentousness to tales of daring and doing, of brave souls whose choices seemed to change the course of the world.  The prose might have been purple in places, but oh God was it glorious to read.  Years before I knew what "historiography" and "monograph" meant, long before I delved into primary source material, read pardon tales and experienced "fiction in the archives," I wanted to be a historian, just so I could read and re-read these fascinating tales of heroes and villains who actually lived, breathed, and died, with their actions affecting the lives of millions. 

Of course, the reality of studying history in the late 20th century at the University of Tennessee was far different from my youthful expectations.  There the focus was on trends and societal moldings of individuals and not the inverse.  I discovered a love for cultural and religious histories, seeing in preserved documents such as the trial of an Italian miller for heresy something more real and intriguing than tales of Frederick the Great's campaigns in Central Europe during the 1740s (that being said, Frederick did lead a fascinating life, full of conflicts both internal and external).  Histories that purportedly had a "theme" or moral to explore just seemed a bit too trite to me, too full of confidence in national and self-delusions to be worth anything more than a diverting look into the world-views of those who composed them in the years just prior and concurrent to Leopold von Ranke's famous maxim, "Wie es eigentlich gewesen" ("How it really was"), being composed to describe his focus on a more rational, fact-based approach to historiography.  Yet there is still something powerful to these older, more Romantic histories that still calls to me.

This certainly was the case when I recently read Francis Parkman's 1865-1893 seven volume history of France's involvement in North America, collected into two volumes by the Library of America and published as France and England in North America.  Parkman's introduction is a bracing read, especially if the reader, like myself, finds himself reacting to almost every line with questions of how something in a similar vein might never see the light of day in early 21st century "professional" journals.  One just does not talk about destinies and civilizations as being fonts of either good and/or evil without being ridiculed these days.  And yet, in re-reading just now Parkman's 1865 introduction (and realizing that he's thinking heavily upon the American Civil War and the fight to remove slavery from the land) there is a life to it that makes these 3000 pages seem fresh even 151 years later.

Parkman's prose certainly helps the curious reader settle quickly into the story he aims to tell.  Despite the lush, almost turgid quality of his introduction, much of the actual histories he tells are concise yet full of vivid descriptions, such as this observation on French resiliency after an English raid on the early settlement of Acadia (now parts of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) in 1613:

In spite of their reverses, the French kept hold on Acadia.  Biencourt, partially at least, rebuilt Port Royal; while winter after winter the smoke of fur-traders' huts curled into the still, sharp air of these frosty wilds, till at length, with happier auspices, plans of settlement were resumed. (p. 239, vol. I)
The subject matter, the invasion/settlement of North America, lends itself well to being viewed as an adventure of wills, of villains and heroes struggling for dominance.  Never mind that Parkman, even more so than many of his contemporaries, often portrays the local nations as being oft-perfidious "savages," whose lust for scalps and mutilations makes them frequent foils for these intrepid explorers.  While there are some exceptions to be found in these volumes, for the most part this is a history that downplays the intricacies of Franco-Native interactions.  This is most apparent in the final volume, Montcalm and Wolfe, as the nations are reduced to little more than waves of savages who aid the French (minus the notable exception of the Six Nations).

Yet despite this major flaw (at least for a one-time historian living in the early 21st century), this narrative approach does make the events of 1535-1763 a compelling read.  This is especially true in two volumes, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West and Montcalm and Wolfe, where Parkman's penchant for describing key historical figures as though they were characters in a novel makes for an absorbing, quick read.  La Salle in particular is a quasi-saint among ruffians, as his single-minded vision for establishing a true French empire in the forests of North America makes him a truly tragic hero whose denouement, long-foreshadowed, is nonetheless more poignant for its seemingly inevitability. 

However, Parkman is more than a one-trick pony.  Vivid and as well-constructed as his tales of historical heroes and villains might be, his use of primary sources is also important.  For the most part, leaving aside his almost calumnious depictions of Native Americans, his histories contain a plethora of citations of letters, diaries, and official documents.  While it might be inconvenient for monolingual readers, Parkman frequently cites, untranslated, various observations by the historical figures and their contemporaries, in his footnotes and appendices.  These citations lend a gravity to the texts that might otherwise have been missing.  His research is extensive and while some of his conclusions can be debated (such as viewing New France versus the English colonies as an extension of feudal/clerical powers vs. incipient liberty-seeking yeomen), the documents themselves do provide a lot of support for other arguments of his, namely the inherent weaknesses in establishing a colony that was based more on the exploitation of natural resources (especially furs) than on the cultivation of these resources.

On the whole, France and England in North America is a well-written, relatively well-researched mid-to-late 19th century history that was written during a time when historiography was being to switch from a narrative-heavy, ideological view of the past toward a more document-based, "scientific" approach toward studying past events.  While some of Parkman's terminology and conclusions might be cringe-worthy today, his fast-paced, person-centered tales create a vivid, complex tapestry of events and people that makes for a gripping read.  It certainly is one of the better examples of 19th century American histories available today for readers curious about colonial settlements but who may not wish to be bogged down with thorough examinations of contemporary societal trends.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A most heartwrenching letter, composed by Benjamin Franklin

Here is what Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1772 to Georgianna Shipley (pp. 139-141 in Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings, Library of America #39B):

Dear Miss,

I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate End of poor Mungo.  Few Squirrels were better accomplish'd; for he had had a good Education, had travell'd far, and seen much of the World.  As he had the Honour of being for his Virtues your Favourite, he should not go like common Skuggs without an Elegy or an Epitaph.  Let us give him one in the monumental Stile and Measure, which being neither Prose nor Verse, is perhaps the properest for Grief; since to use common Language would look as if we were not affected, and to make Rhimes would seem Trifling in Sorrow.

Alas!  poor Mungo!
Happy wert thou, hadst thou known
Thy own Felicity!
Remote from the fierce Bald-Eagle,
Tyrant of thy native Woods,
Thou hadst nought to fear from his piercing Talons;
Nor from the murdering Gun
Of the thoughtless Sportsman.
Safe in thy wired Castle,
Grimalkin never could annoy thee.
Daily wert thou fed with the choicest Viands
By the fair Hand
Of an indulgent Mistress.
But, discontented, thou wouldst have more Freedom.
Too soon, alas!  didst thou obtain it,
And, wandering,
Fell by the merciless Fangs,
Of wanton, cruel Ranger.
Learn hence, ye who blindly wish more Liberty,
Whether Subjects, Sons, Squirrels or Daughters,
That apparent Restraint may be real Protection
Yielding Peace, Plenty, and Security.

You see how much more decent and proper this broken Stile, interrupted as it were with Sighs, is for the Occasion, than if one were to say, by way of Epitaph,

Here Skugg
Lies snug
As a Bug
In a Rug.

And yet perhaps there are People in the World of so little Feeling as to think, that would be a good-enough Epitaph for our poor Mungo!

If you wish it, I shall procure another to succeed him.  But perhaps you will now chuse some other Amusement.  Remember me respectfully to all the [  ] good Family; and believe me ever, Your affectionate Friend

September 26, 1772

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Looking at my recent reading, I almost wonder if I have entered a time warp

It is funny how sometimes the old can become new again.  When I was 23, back in 1997, I thought I was burned out on reading histories.  Back then, I thought that if I had to endure one more dip into primary source material, one more monograph, that I might explode.  Sure enough, despite having taught social studies for several years afterward, I barely read any historical non-fiction.  And yet, earlier this month, I found myself thumbing through the two-volume Library of America edition of 19th century American historian Francis Parkman's seven books on New France, France and England in North America, and I let myself get lost in his prose.  Well, until I began encountering arguments and presentations that led to think, "wait, this should have been approached from another angle" or "no, this isn't a good way of arguing the point," before finding myself engaging in the text not just as a casual reader, but as a former historian-in-training.

Now when I was in grad school, my focus was on Early Modern and Modern European cultural/intellectual/religious history, so I only had passing encounters with American history beyond the survey level (one of those, on colonial Atlantic colonies, taught me more than any other course on how to write and dissect histories).  Therefore, Parkman's histories made me look at the other Library of America volumes I had on hand.  Being typically unambitious, I selected nearly a dozen volumes to read.  However, I am not reading them sequentially, but rather in a patchwork chronological order, going from the 1760s to the 1820s.  For the curious, here's the list of books:

  • Benjamin Franklin, Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings (1722-1775; already finished); Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings
  • Gordon Wood (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1772 (almost finished); Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1773-1776 
  • George Washington, Writings (finished the pre-1775 section)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Writings (finished his Autobiography and a pre-1776 section)
  • Abigail Adams, Letters (read pre-1770 letters so far)
  • John Rhodehamel (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the War of Independence (will start after finishing the Wood books)
  • James Madison, Writings (will read after finishing the Rhodehamel)
  • Alexander Hamilton, Writings (to be read concurrently with the Madison and later Jefferson)
Time/energy permitting, I'll write short commentaries on these works in the coming weeks.  It certainly has encouraged me to read more than I have at any point these past 18 months, as I've nearly doubled my 2016 reads over the past two weeks.  If my interest is still sustained after completing these reads, I'll likely read a two-volume look at the debates surrounding the U.S. Constitution and another 19th century history, this one on Jefferson and Madison's administrations.

As for fiction reading, that too seems to have reverted to what I would read in 1996-1997 when I needed a break from reading monographs.  Almost done re-reading Theodore Dreiser's outstanding An American Tragedy and a Library of America edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's pre-1923 works (This Side of Paradise is relatively underrated these days) and I might review those as well.

Yes, I know there are some readers (if any still frequent this blog, that is) who would rather see reviews of recent speculative fictions, but sometimes a reader just has to go back to the well in order to rediscover just what s/he loved about literature in the first place.  Besides, I have 175 Library of America editions that I'd like to review before I turn 50, so might as well whittle down that mountain while my interest is high, n'est ce pas?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

R. Scott Bakker, The Great Ordeal

Domination.  Over lives and nations.  Over history and ignorance.  Over existence itself, down through the leaves of reality's countless skins.  No mortal had possessed such might.  His was a power and potency that not even the Gods, who must ration themselves across all times, could hope to counter, short of scooping themselves hollow and forever dwelling as phantoms...

No soul had no owned Circumstance.  He, and he alone, was the Place, the point of maximal convergence.  Nations hung from his whim.  Reality grovelled before his song.  The Outside itself railed against him.

And yet for all of it darkness still encircled him, the obscurity of before, the blackness of after.

For those who worshipped him as a god, he remaine a mortal man, possessing but one intellect and two hands – great, perhaps, in proportion to his innumerable slaves, but scarcely a mote on the surface of something inconceivable.  He was no more a prophet than an architect or any other who wrenches his conception into labourious reality.  All the futures he had raised had been the issue of his toil...

He suffered visions, certainly, but he had long ceased to trust them. (pp. 120-121)

Despite its many flaws in form, there is something about modern epic fantasies that attracts me to read them still on occasion.  Perhaps it is the partial erasure of modernity, with its rejection of intentionalist world-views, and the resulting construction of a structured reality that is potentially pregnant with meaning in a fashion that just cannot exist today.  Struggles that are made concrete, externalized and presented frequently in anthropomorphic forms, yes, there is the possibility that something profound that could be said about life itself without reducing our own concerns to those of worker bees.  But too often, these promises of profundity dissipate into trite truisms that ring hollow, with various reiterations of pre-modern (usually) Western societies collapsing under the weight of perceived gaps in understanding humanity and its propensity to war against itself.

I have been reading R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse novels for a little over twelve years now.  His mixture of philosophical concepts of mind and reality (or rather, the artificiality of such) within the trappings of a constructed society in which there is a true, "objective" reality where religious texts possess a literal meaning captured my attention when I first read The Darkness That Comes Before back in 2004.  Over the intervening years, I have struggled at times to process what Bakker is exploring, as there are several uncomfortable elements within his fiction that can be off-putting when the reader compares them to modern debates on issues such as gender, race, and general parity between individuals.  His writing is very dense, full of concepts that do not necessarily reflect those of the author himself, but instead of the mindsets that went into the construction of religious/social milieus during the pre-modern era.  It certainly takes some patience and a willingness to trust Bakker to forge on beyond the rapes, the coercions, the general "darkness" of the series to see just where he is going with his arguments and with his characters.

His sixth novel in the overall series (and third in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series), The Great Ordeal, is a revelatory one in many senses.  We come to understand the import behind certain choices made earlier in the series, such as the effects of consuming the enemy Sranc upon the titular Great Ordeal as it moves toward its dread goal or the fate of the Emperor Kellhus's natal Ishuäl.  The reader also learns more of the Non-men and the dreadful effects of their artificial immortality.  Isolated into plot developments, these events alone would provide some fodder for fans of the series to digest until the last volume in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series, The Unholy Consult, appears in the next year.  However, there are certain metaphysical points of contention raised within The Great Ordeal that provide a greater depth to these events.

One of Bakker's concerns throughout this novel, spread as it is among scenes within the Great Ordeal, Ishuäl, the Non-men mansion of Ishterebinth, and the imperial capital of Momemn, is to illustrate how various characters try to grasp the concept of the Absolute.  The quote above, which occurs before a pivotal (and perhaps problematic) scene involving Kellhus, deals with the confluence of reality and lives into a concrete Place where the Absolute dwells.  In this passage, we see some of Kellhus's mentality laid bare for us, with conceits and self-deception ever lurking on the edges of his frank self-portrayal.  This (perhaps deserved?) arrogance, mixed with an ever-growing sense of "love" that threatens to "corrupt" the Thousandfold Thought that has conditioned his path to power, serves as a partial explanation to the events that immediately follow.  By itself, it's a deep look into one of the more mysterious characters in the series, but when viewed in conjunction with scenes that transpire late in the Ishterebinth and Ishuäl chapters, it morphs into something less lofty and more fallible in terms of how Kellhus's conception of the Place/Absolute may be something beyond his ken. 

For readers who have been disturbed in the past by Eärwa's treatment of women (particularly the numerous rapes within the previous novels), Bakker tries to make explicit, through the vision of "Whale Mothers" that Mimara has, that depiction does not equal endorsement.  There are several hints that this "objective" reduction of women to beings lesser than men is due to arbitrariness on the part of those collective beings whose intentions have driven reality in this setting.  Yet despite this, there are still moments where it seems that the female characters in three of the key scenes (Ishterebinth, Ishuäl, Momemn) fall too readily into subordinate roles even when taking into consideration the unfolding situations about them.

The prose was another challenging element.  While I understand Bakker's desire to create a narrative that would reflect (and at times, reveal internal contradictions) ancient historical and religious texts, there were times where the writing was perhaps too opaque in its descriptions of event and its import.  This was especially true in those scenes where characters were considering Love in context of the world about them.  It is one thing to express the importance (and possible deceptions) of Love, but another to weave it in seamlessly with the greater narrative.  Too frequently, I felt as though I were temporarily "tossed out" of reading the text through perceiving the maladroit integration of certain concepts within the narrative.  Yet there were times, especially with the "Boatman" scene, where Bakker's prose creates a heightened sense of horror that goes beyond the visceral into something less definable yet no less terrifying when considered at length.  On the whole, the prose did serve to create a more "alien" mindscape, especially in the Ishterebinth scenes, than what might have occurred if Bakker's prose had been more direct.

For the most part, I was fascinated (I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed," considering the unsettling nature of many of the plot revelations) by many of the scenes present within the novel, yet ultimately I felt as though it ended weakly.  Many of the scenes end on the cusp of something important happening or in the midst of key developments, lacking in any sort of firm developments to help make sense of them.  There were few, if any, "natural" end places for these character/plot arcs and by the time the last page was turned, I was acutely aware that The Great Ordeal was but the first part of a larger narrative arc.  This put a damper on my overall engagement with the novel, as it felt like I was having to abandon it at an earlier place than perhaps it should have concluded.  Now I have to wait for The Unholy Consult's arrival to be able to judge better if what I had just read was as good as I found it to be for the majority of its pages.  The Great Ordeal ultimately is a good, yet flawed, volume in the Second Apocalypse series. 
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